The Indigenous Youth Leaders with Senators. Photo Facebook, Christopher Tait.

This week, La Ronge’s Modeste McKenzie was among nine young Indigenous adults speaking to the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa.

The “Indigenous Youth Leaders” from across Canada were asked to enlighten senators on how to forge a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous people, and their comments will become part of the committee’s study on the topic.

McKenzie, a 22-year-old Lac La Ronge youth worker whose parents are Metis and Dene, is one of nine people selected to address the committee, picked from more than a 100 community nominees across Canada.

In committee on Wednesday night, McKenzie followed a moving rendition of a Mikmaq nursery song created by New Brunswick’s Holly Sock.

Senator Murray Sinclair joked “everybody’s who’s following you now is thinking ‘why did she not go last?’” but McKenzie took it in stride, jokingly offering to do a Metis jig on the table.

Those jokes soon gave way to serious topics, namely to the fall deaths of four young girls in northern Saskatchewan, all by suicide. McKenzie was hired as a youth worker around that time and his baby Natalia was born in the following weeks.

“I’m not just fighting for myself and for my peers, but for this young child, for my child,” he said.

Senator Dennis Patterson asked what drives young people to despair, and what they need.

Mckenzie said it’s a complex issue with no clear answer, but “it’s a lot of things. It’s poverty, it’s addictions, sometimes it’s even a social thing – suicide pacts are common, they do happen. But working with those kids, never in my life have I met such amazing, resilient, smart, kind, courageous youth.”

He said traditional teachings and a listening ear are crucial.

The committee also showed interest in why successful elements of programs like NORTEP, a program McKenzie advocated for, are often done away with by provincial governments.

He said the province is going through tough times and sought to amalgamate the teacher education and arts education programming, with Northlands College taking over.

“Really just to cut administrative costs down and that was about $500,000 in savings. Kind of a drop in the bucket if you ask me,” he said.

“The things that made NORTEP special no longer exist. The tuition was paid for. With a new organization that has it now, that’s not happening. The books were paid for. They’re no longer paid for by this new organization And NORTEP had excellent housing.”

McKenzie spoke in depth about education funding inequity between on-reserve and off-reserve students and advocated for building economies that do not rely on resource extraction.